People improve their minds with facts and information and expand their hearts with context and details. Excellent writing involves both, and that’s why it’s essential to teach students how to write descriptively. By being more interesting and engaging to read, descriptive writing draws in the reader regardless of whether the purpose of the piece is to be informative, opinion-based or narrative.
Rather than merely a creative flourish, descriptive writing is a core part of what defines a writer’s style and voice. This makes it worth focusing on throughout your students’ entire academic careers to set them up for success in college and beyond.
Paint a Picture with Words (Grades K-1)
Descriptive writing is primarily used to describe a person, place or thing so that a specific, detailed image forms in the reader’s mind. This provides additional context for the reader to engage with and can make the writing more interesting by inviting the reader to interact with it in a more personal way. It all starts by choosing descriptive words.
Sometimes it can be challenging to find the right words, so get ahead of the problem by teaching your students to keep lists of words to use in their future writing. It’s usually easier to start with an existing writing reference and then add to it as students discover new words they like and want to hang onto for future use.
Activities to Try
- Use this worksheet to give students examples of sensory words and vivid verbs. In addition to being used as a writing reference, encourage students to add their own!
- Lead a discussion about different words that describe the same basic concept (such as all the sensory details related to going to a pool).
- Give students a topic (like “making popcorn” or “getting a haircut”) and have them write down all the words they can think of that describe that topic—encourage students to include as many of the human senses as they can, including sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.
- Your students can use this graphic organizer to help them organize all the sensory details they came up with when describing the topic.
Bubbling Over with Ideas (Grades K-1)
Descriptive writing tends to be intuitive. Most students will focus on the visual, while some will include details about one or two other senses. The challenge is for them to learn how to automatically incorporate more descriptive information into their writing, involving all five senses whenever possible to create a more fully realized piece of writing.
Similar to the writing reference above, it makes sense to brainstorm sensory details as part of the planning phase of the writing process. In addition to using a general writing reference for sensory words, have students take some time during their brainstorming sessions to think of words, phrases and details for each of the five senses related to the given topic. This will make it easier to incorporate these details while writing.
Activities to Try
- Write a word on the whiteboard (like “winter” or the name of your state) and have students take turns adding descriptive words (involving all of the five senses) that relate to the chosen word.
- Use this graphic organizer to help students brainstorm sensory details before writing.
- Try using limitations to increase creativity. Ask students to describe something using only one of the five senses.
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Make It Great. Illustrate! / Five Star Illustration (Grades K-1)
Adding an illustration to a piece of writing can help students make connections that will help them understand the point of descriptive writing. This worksheet includes important elements of how to illustrate a piece of writing and serves as a handy checklist.
Effective writing forms an image in the reader’s mind, and adding an illustration can help students make sure their words are conveying the image they want. Once they’ve created their illustration, they can decide whether there are any other sensory details they want to add to their writing or illustration.
Activities to Try
- Lead a discussion about the best way to add illustrations to a piece of writing. Use a picture book or an early reader book as an example.
- Have students write a description of a picture, then discuss the difference between words and pictures. Ask them to use words to convey what they see in the picture.
- Use this worksheet to help students double-check that their descriptive illustrations check all the boxes.
Check It Out (Grades 2-3)
It can also make sense to brainstorm topics ahead of time. Students have more autonomy over their writing topics in the second and third grades. Rather than coming up with a topic on the fly and then deciding how to make that topic come alive for readers, students can get ahead of the game by creating a list of topics that they feel knowledgeable about and can effectively develop into engaging, descriptive writing.
As they progress in their academic careers, students will benefit from taking the time to make sure they’re choosing subjects that match well with the assignment topics. To do this efficiently and avoid wasted time, it’s beneficial for students to have a general idea of what topics they’re either knowledgeable about or would like to spend time learning about.
Activities to Try
- Use this graphic organizer to help students develop a list of people, places and things to write about. All of these topics will provide excellent opportunities for descriptive writing.
- Lead a discussion with your students about different topics that are especially likely to have a lot of sensory details present. As the discussion goes on, your students will realize that there’s always a way to add more description to their writing.
- Remind students to include descriptive language in all of their writing. Take some time to help students incorporate sensory details into their assignments and projects, even when descriptive writing isn’t a core element of the assignment or project.
Spice Up Your Writing (Grades 2-3)
Using unique verbs and adjectives will help your students set their writing apart. This worksheet builds on the ideas above—a writing reference full of unique words to use—but this one divides the words into their parts of speech, focusing on verbs and adjectives.
Different words have different connotations. Younger students know this intuitively even if they don’t understand why or exactly how they can use that to improve their writing. A shiny car is different from a dirty car; someone who sips their water is different from someone who chugs their water.
Thinking about the differences and what those differences suggest will help young learners make their points more effectively by using the most fitting words to imply what they want their readers to infer.
Activities to Try
- Lead a discussion with students about particularly descriptive verbs. (Example verbs include “slither,” “beamed” and “reeking.”)
- Use this worksheet as a writing reference for students to learn creative and exciting verbs and adjectives. Additionally, you can make similar graphic organizers for other parts of speech: nouns, adverbs, etc.
- As part of the editing process, have students find places in their writing where they can add more description and then include that description in the next draft. This graphic organizer can help your students develop their topics even further!
Leaping Into the Story (Grades 4-5)
When writing a story, it can be helpful to brainstorm using a graphic organizer that has a space for character, setting and plot elements. This graphic organizer includes sections for the main character, setting, problem, solution and ending.
You can add a second piece of paper to include details about secondary characters and additional settings for longer stories. Remind students to include as many sensory details as possible, especially for elements like the setting, to make the story more realistic and relatable.
External character traits are an excellent place to start when writing a story, and it’s also important to spend time making sure those details engage the senses.
The same is true for the setting. Students can benefit from taking notes on their characters and settings to more easily incorporate these details into their fiction writing during the first draft rather than making up details in the moment. This often causes progress to screech to a halt. They can avoid these roadblocks altogether by building sensory details into the rest of the planning.
Activities to Try
- Use this graphic organizer to get students brainstorming about their stories.
- Lead a discussion with your students about how they can use character traits to describe different characters. You can use characters your students have written, pop culture characters, or characters from a story the class is reading.
- A big part of descriptive writing is about focusing on unique details. To help students understand this, have the class make a list of details about their community, such as the cold chill on January mornings or the best places to observe a sunset.
You Don’t Say! (Grades 4-5)
This graphic organizer is best when utilized alongside other graphic organizers since it focuses on a character in a narrative that’s already at least partially planned. It includes brainstorming descriptive details during all phases of the story and has additional space for possible dialogue and actions the characters might take.
Most successful fiction is character-driven, meaning the narrative results from the characters’ actions. Stories are much more satisfying for readers if the characters take an active role in solving their problems rather than the problem being solved for the character while they passively react. Students can benefit from writing characters who take an active role in their stories by learning that they can take a more active role in their own lives.
Activities to Try
- Lead a discussion about descriptive details that your students can incorporate into a story to either establish or solve a problem.
- Use this graphic organizer to help students plan a narrative in more detail, focusing on the characters. Students can work on one graphic organizer for each major character in their narrative.
- Plan a story as a class. Create a setting and characters together, decide what the central conflict will be, and have everyone work on smaller stories that they can combine to tell a larger story. Make sure to focus on descriptive writing to make the story more engaging.
A great way to get students excited about writing is by publishing through one of our free classbook publishing kits! Assignments based on any of the graphic organizers or activities listed here are an ideal place to start. Just collect your students’ writing and art into a themed classbook to create an entire classroom full of published authors!
Learning how to utilize descriptive writing techniques in their writing is one of the most effective ways for students to create pieces that their readers will be able to connect with. The skills and tips they learn from these graphic organizers will help them develop their style and voice and communicate in compelling and creative ways throughout the rest of their lives.
For more lesson plans, graphic organizers and other helpful creative writing resources for your classroom, check out our online Teacher’s Lounge and be sure to sign up for your free classbook publishing kit!